small events big events

What’s the difference between a “big” event and a “small” event? Beyond the obvious stuff, that is. It goes without saying that big and small events differ in attendance. Bigger events are often longer. They usually offer a more extensive agenda. And while the per-attendee budgets may be comparable, the total investment required to produce a “big” event is of course much larger.

These things are non-controversial facts. Of course there’s a difference between big and small events. So let’s ask a more pointed question:

What’s the difference in attendee experience at big & small events?

In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be any difference at all. Attendees shouldn’t suffer just because they happen to be sitting amongst fewer of their colleagues. Reality, though, often falls far short of this ideal. The real-world difference between big- and small-event attendee experiences can be quite dramatic.

Smaller events often have a less organized, more slapdash feel. When everything happens on the same day and in the same room, organizers often seem to put less energy into thinking through the event’s logistical possibilities. Speakers can seem to be less prepared and less polished. Registration and check-in feels a little seat-of-the-pants.

Why the drop-off in attendee experience quality?

So why is this? Well, the best we can figure is that there are two reasons. The first is budget. Not only are total budgets smaller for smaller events, their per-attendee budgets are often smaller as well. Corners get cut.

The second reason is institutional commitment, which of course can be a driving factor in the lower budgets as well. This is especially true in organizations that produce several events each year, some of them big and some of them small. It’s easy to give disproportionate attention to the larger, more prominent events on the calendar.

We know, because we’re one of those organizations. We fight against an instinctual bias toward the larger events all the time.

Don’t make “small” an excuse

Here’s the bottom line: it takes a lot of work to put on an event. That’s true for any event, big or small.

Most of the baseline work that goes into event production isn’t affected by the number of attendees you ultimately expect. Speakers need to be recruited and prepped. You need to create an effective event agenda. You need to promote your event, and you need to sell tickets and process registrations.

The challenge is, when you’re faced with a small-event budget that’s smaller than you’re used to working with (again, in organizations that produce several events a year), most of us instinctively start thinking about how to cut corners. But cutting corners often ends up being the most expensive thing you can do.

Why? Because cutting corners means valuable time gets eaten up stepping aside from your proven process to figure out a different way of doing things. Production quality suffers, and not only because of the things you decide not to do. It also suffers when you leave yourself less time than usual to do a good job executing the stuff you keep.

And when production quality suffers, so does the attendee experience. With a weak attendee experience, the prospect of achieving your event’s goals is diminished. You’ve inadvertently created a quite-vicious cycle:

  1. An event is defined as “small” 
  2. An equivalently small budget is assigned for its production 
  3. You instinctively cut corners, which itself diminishes the attendee experience, and 
  4. There’s less time remaining to execute the basics well, further diminishing the attendee experience 
  5. Attendees perceive diminished value in your event 
  6. Event revenue and repeat attendance both drop 
  7. Lather, rinse, repeat

The logical extension of this cycle is that, eventually, “thinking small” could kill off your event. Nobody wants that. You can prevent it by “thinking big,” even for small events.

How to “think big” about small events

We’ve thought a lot about this around here, and after a lot of real-world experience, here’s where we’ve landed. These are our rules to make sure smaller events have the same chance to succeed as larger ones:

Firm up baseline production standards. Formalize a set of bottom-line standards for the production quality and attendee experience of your event. Be explicit. Write it down. Make it clear that the standards apply regardless of event size.

Set clear goals. Before you start planning, put a line in the sand for exactly how many attendees you expect at your event. Be honest with yourself. There’s no benefit in making pie-in-the-sky estimates here.

Balance per-event and per-attendee thinking. As much as you can (redirecting organizations around issues like this can be hard), include honest, rationalized thinking about per-attendee spending in your budgeting process. If you’ve set clear attendance goals, you’ll be able to do this more easily. Be clear-eyed about your per-attendee spending. If the effective per-attendee budget for your small event is only a fraction of what is for a larger event, you’re going to have a hard time avoiding trouble.

Deal with the negative economies of scale. Even if your per-attendee budget is the same, your money still might not go as far in a smaller event, due to the potential loss of economies of scale. Be clear-eyed about this. You can deal with it.

Seek low-cost, high-performance solutions. Don’t necessarily default to the same tools and resources you always use in planning your event. Your usual suspects may not provide the best solution for the budget you have available. There are lots of free or low-cost event-management tools out there. Find a good one, and use it when you need to make up for lost economies of scale. (Of course, EventNut fits into this category, and we encourage you to check out our tools. But we’re not the only one. You should explore.)

Commit, commit, commit to the attendee experience. We believe firmly that a relentless focus on the attendee experience — every aspect of it, from your website to your post-event followup — is the truest, most reliable path to event success. Don’t cut corners when it comes to the experience you put on offer. No matter how large or small your event (and your budget), prioritize your attendee experience above everything else. A positive attendee experience is how events (large and small) succeed and grow, full stop.

Remember, “small” isn’t an excuse. Be smart about what you’re doing, rigorous in your commitment to attendee-experience standards, and flexible about the tools and resources you use. You’ll soon see: small events can (and should) make the same pound-for-pound impact as their larger siblings.

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